The day Kyle Hendricks made his big-league debut, he pitched six innings and retired 16 of the final 19 he faced. And nobody noticed.
Well, that’s not entirely true. His parents noticed. And friends back home in California, And probably a few former Dartmouth teammates.
But his big day, which came at the end of a two-week road trip in July 2014, was one of three major-league debuts for the Cubs on just that trip alone during their rebuilding season, was made possible only because the Cubs had traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the rotation six days earlier, and was further overshadowed by a bench-clearing incident that began when Anthony Rizzo threw his glove to the ground and went after the entire Reds’ dugout by himself — one of the most unforgettable images in recent Cubs history.
“Definitely a lot of things have changed since my first year with the Cubs,” Hendricks said.
One of the biggest for the Cubs: Hendricks’ stature.
A nondescript A-ball pitcher when the Cubs acquired him from Texas at the 2012 trade deadline for Ryan Dempster, Hendricks hasn’t looked back since that 2014 debut.
He has been a remarkably consistent fixture in the rotation since that day, with a 3.13 ERA to show for 174 career starts, an ERA title in 2016 followed by a Game 7 World Series start, his first Opening Day assignment last summer, and — as he opens his eighth season with the Cubs — the title of last-man-standing ace of the new-look pitching staff.
Just how much things have changed will be evident April 1 when Hendricks makes his second opening start, ahead of former mentor Jake Arrieta — who’s back after a three-year stint with the Phillies on a one-year deal that was finalized Wednesday.
“I just saw him two days ago in the locker room, and we both kind of said it was weird,” Hendricks said. “It was like no time ever passed. I don’t know where those three years went. It’s almost like he never left.”
The Cubs say they’re counting on Arrieta, at 35, to provide a confident, veteran clubhouse presence that’s in short supply after an exodus of veteran starters over the winter.
But for all of Arrieta’s swagger and big-game, Cy Young history, make no mistake: this is Hendricks’ staff, for the first time in his career, whether he looks at it that way or not.
“It’s hard to look back at all that right now. I’ve always been someone trying to work as hard as I can and never stop,” he said. “I don’t really know where my [ceiling] is at the top. So I just want to keep going, try and be as good as I can be, get the most out of my career.”
If the Cubs get the full-season workload out of him that he says he’s prepared to pitch, thanks to a vigorous program during last year’s shutdown before the pandemic-shortened season, his performance might go as far as anyone’s on the team toward the Cubs’ effort in defending their 2020 division title.
If anyone thinks that sounds like added pressure, manager David Ross says think again.
“Some guys you would have to worry about that. Kyle’s definitely not that guy,” Ross said. “Mentally, he’s very strong and stable and knows who he is.”
What’s certain is that he’s one of the few pitchers left on the staff fans will know as things get underway this spring after a cost-cutting winter that included dumping the final three years of Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish’s contract in a trade with the Padres and the free agent departures of veterans Jon Lester, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.
But Hendricks, 31, said he’s ready, and so does his career history — including that 103-pitch shutout against the Pirates in last year’s opener.
“The great thing about Kyle is he was around Jake in his prime and around Jon Lester in the championship run and has grown from being around those guys,” Ross said. “So a lot of the qualities that we’ll be missing in Jon and we were missing last year in Jake, that we get back, Kyle has taken on a lot of that.
“He’s got a presence about him. He’s got a work ethic. He’s a great teammate. And he’s unfazed in the moment.”